The debate was held at the Beth El Synagogue and was sponsored by several Jewish community groups. The sponsors set the format of the debate and formulated most of the questions.
Republican Alan Fine is a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. In his opening remarks, Fine who is Jewish, told the audience that his grandfather was one of the founders of the Beth El Synagogue. Then he went on the offensive.
"The Star Tribune this last week tried to fix this election by writing erroneous stories," Fine alleged.
The newspaper had obtained a copy of an expunged police report from 1995 that stated that Fine had been arrested and booked on a domestic abuse charge. His then-wife later dropped the charges. Fine has denied the assault charges and has asked the paper to retract the story.
Fine says the paper and other news media are doing things that he said are "not kosher." Then, he went after Ellison.
"His connections to CAIR, which is an organization which Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer believe have ties to terrorism. His connection to the Nation of Islam. I want you to know that I have never been a member of the Nation of Islam and I haven't accepted any money from the leaders of CAIR," Fine said.
Ellison, who is a Muslim, says members of the Council on American Islamic Relations have contributed to his campaign. If elected, Ellison will become the first Muslim member of Congress. Before the primary, Ellison was dogged by questions about his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, who has been accused of being anti-Semitic. Ellison appeared reluctant to address the subject again.
"And I would like to just tell you that I am not a member of the Nation of Islam, nor have I ever been. Nor am I endorsed by CAIR. Certain individuals have donated to my campaign. And I just think you ought to know the truth," Ellison.
Ellison was more enthusiastic about discussing health care, education, renewable energy and talking about his opposition to the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq and the war on terror. Ellison spoke out against the Military Commissions Act, which was signed Tuesday by the president. The act would deny terror suspects a chance to legally challenge their incarceration.
"I think that our security in this world and our fight against terrorism has to start with the idea that America is a democratic country that stands for really important values among those is due process. You have to allow people to challenge their detention," he said.
Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee expressed views similar to Ellison on nearly every issue. However, Lee distinguished herself from Ellison by saying she has experience living and working in Washington D.C. In the mid '90s, she served as press secretary to Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Lee also talked about her corporate experience. Her resume includes a stint with Sun Country Airlines as it worked through bankruptcy and was put up for sale.
"Then was recruited to U.S. Airways to do the same thing in Washington," she told the audience. "So I know these are trying economic times, but to make businesses more competitive and more productive you need the right skill set. And to Washington D.C., I bring an experience that includes turning around failing companies. And I don't think there's a skill set more needed than turning around a failing government."
Lee says, her party affiliation is also an advantage. After watching Fine go after Ellison and hearing jeers and hisses from the audience, Lee says she doesn't carry the political baggage borne by Democrats and Republicans.
"I want to be a uniter and not a divider," she said. "We've had enough partisan politics, divisive bickering, people that tear each other down while they try to build themselves up. This country is fed up with that. So I bring to you a vision of unity, a vision of common sense."
A fourth candidate for the congressional seat, Jay Pond of the Green Party was in attendance, but was not invited to participate at the debate. However, he and the major party candidates will appear at another debate tonight at the University of Minnesota.